A Note on Chance & Retrospection

I’m not much for thinking about counterfactual pasts—“If it wasn’t for that horse, I never would’ve spent that year in college”—because to suggest that long causal chains can be retrospectively determined with any accuracy seems a gross overconfidence in the lying machine that is human long-term memory (let alone in the power of a human consciousness to know—consciously—why it’s making a decision even in the present).

Yet I cannot help but experience as true the idea that if I hadn’t thought of a certain pun, I never would’ve met my wife:

  1. I was going to write my undergrad thesis on literature, but I thought of a pun I wanted to use in my title that only made sense for a film thesis, and really a thesis on horror film.
  2. I had taken many film studies classes, but never really dealt with horror. I learned everything I could about it, watched all the films I’d missed by being terrified of the genre till age 19, and wrote the thesis.
  3. I liked the work so much that, years later, when it seemed time to go to grad school, I went to Pitt to work with a prominent scholar on horror.
  4. At Pitt, I met my wife, Aubrey Hirsch. The cliché “lovely and talented” is never more accurate than when applied to her.

I remembered this story today after forgetting about it nearly a decade ago. It’s a true and almost absurd and you’ll have to take my word that the missing details don’t matter.

Giving a Shit About Cheap Shots in the NFL

In response to Drew Magary’s assertion that “No One Gives a Shit About Cheap Shots”:

  1. Magary’s obviously wrong to think this was just one weekend of hits followed by some out-of-the-blue media shitstorm. Coverage has been steadily increasing for years, especially this past year, when I’ve read about the issue in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times, the fucking Post-Gazette, and in perhaps a half-dozen other places—and that was all before week six. Hell, I even wrote about it myself last year.
  2. Every time I post a link to some article about brain injury in the NFL on Facebook, I get a long thread and the odd private message from people who either aren’t watching football anymore or who are but really wish it were different. I think hard-core sports fans—like just about everybody Magary seems to be in touch with—don’t give a shit about the hits, but they’re not as much in the mainstream as they might like to think. I myself turned off the RedZone in week six (of all weeks!) in part to give myself a break from all the carnage. It’s honestly more than I want to see most Sundays, and it’s getting harder and harder to watch.
  3. NFL players have indeed been subject to shorter life spans for a long time, but they’re getting shorter and shorter with every passing decade. And the argument that people know what they’re getting into is horseshit. When you’re in college getting drafted, you know what you’re getting into. But when you’re a fucking nine-year-old running back whose NFL dreams are already changing the decisions you make in life, you are in no way capable of evaluating the consequences of your repeated head traumas. Frankly, even high-schoolers—who get some terrible concussions and subconcussive brain injuries playing football—simply don’t have fully-developed cognitive architectures yet, and in particular, they’re terrible (on average) at thinking about futures and consequences (which is obvious on the face of it, but also backed by plenty of good science). In short, once you’re in the NFL, it’s way too late to back out. People are simply not equipped to back off of a dozen years of attachment to a dream because suddenly some team lawyer is reading them a bunch of legalese about the risks of concussion. (And that’s to say nothing of the overwhelming majority of high-school players who never get to the NFL. Where’s the payoff for their brain damage?)
  4. This is a societal problem, not a sports problem. Magary’s not the only one to miss that point. On SportsCenter, Trent Dilfer defended the as-it-has-been NFL by using the word “gladiatorial.” But there’s a reason dogfighting is illegal, a reason certain kinds of bloodsporty mixed martial arts are illegal, a reason we don’t fucking bait bears anymore. As a civilized society, we understand the dangers of indulging human instincts that may well be natural. (Or at least, we did at the time of the release of The Running Man.) That football has become gladiatorial is an argument against its current role in our society, not for it.

A Note on the LHC and the Grandfather Paradox

A New York Times piece that’s made the rounds in the last week or so takes up the idea that the Large Hadron Collider might not work for reasons involving to the grandfather paradox.

(If you’ve never heard of the grandfather paradox, head over to the Times piece now. I avoid describing it here so as not to taint what follows.)

One thing that irks me when people talk about the grandfather paradox: It’s not so much that you can’t go back and kill your grandfather; it’s that you always already didn’t do so (to co-opt a suddenly non-bogus phrase from the post-structuralists).

So the same goes for the LHC. I think the prediction on the table isn’t that something will happen to keep it from working; it’s that something already has (or, like, “already will have”—our verb tenses don’t do justice to the physics).

I have a pet peeve around the issue because this kind of not-quite-right summation kept me from really understanding the grandfather paradox for years.

For the Good of the Team: Football Coaches & Conscience

In his latest essay for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about one of the greatest dangers football players face: long-term brain damage from all the impact. It’s a grim, worthwhile read.

Gladwell doesn’t discuss the element that most disturbs me: the role of coaches in perpetuating the “programm[ing],” as one former NFL player calls it, that keeps players putting the team above their own well-being.

Gladwell looks to the testimony of Kyle Turley, who played in the NFL for nearly a decade, to show how players with recent head, neck, or spine injuries decide to put themselves back in harm’s way “on behalf of the team.”

I understand that players get caught up in the physicality and camaraderie of the game, and how those factors might contribute to their making certain dangerous choices. But how can a coach feel OK about sending recently-injured players back out onto the field? How can he hold the good of the team above the short- or long-term mental and physical health of the player?

As Phil Ochs put it:

It’s always the old to lead us to the war,
Always the young to fall.

Puzzles or Placation?: How We (Can) Watch Movies

In a recent post on his excellent blog, The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer responds to David Denby’s review of State of Play. In accord with Denby, Lehrer remarks:

Ever since Pulp Fiction, and certainly since The Usual Suspects, there’s been a segment of filmmakers that sees the movie as akin to a puzzle, an artistic form which should only make sense in the moments before the final credits start to roll.

He then remarks that “the essential state of movie-watching”—which he also calls “the fundamental experience of watching a movie” and refers to as the reason “people go to the movie theater”—is a state of “total immersion.” The “puzzle film,” as we might call it, defies these practices.

In this post, I want to complicate the privileging of this one way of watching movies, which Lehrer also describes as “dissolv[ing] into the spectacle on the screen.” Are there other possibilities? What kinds of value do they have?

First, some of us will enjoy films like State and Play more than others. As an afterthought, Lehrer mentions the postmodern novel as in the family of the puzzle film; it’s worth noting that few critics question the “art” of the postmodern novel—they just reduce the problem to one of personal taste.

Not so with film, which has since its earliest days been kept to the wrong side of a false dichotomy involved “art” and “entertainment.” At a minimum, people ought to treat puzzle films at least like Seinfeld and Costanza treated homosexuality, with a committed not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that attitude.

Second, and more pertinent from a cognitive-science perspective though, even the most conventional narrative films necessarily engage us in puzzle-solving activity. Even setting aside the detective film, understanding any story requires a mix of attention, memory, and other forms of cognition to make sense at all.

Most narrative films make these tasks easier for us by adhering to a well-developed system of conventions, or by carefully taking into account our attentive or perceptual capabilities and limitations. But if they do so, it’s to satisfy an expectation, and to make money—not because there’s something more fundamental within the art itself of film about this approach.

To see how all this works, try this exercise (which my Intro to Film Studies class will also undertake in their first session on Monday): Choose a Hollywood film you haven’t seen, but that you can easily watch. Write down everything you know or expect about the film before you begin watching. What do your experiences of the genre, stars, country of origin, marketing, and other factors prepare you for? Next, watch the opening of that film and take careful note of everything you learn—from the music, the dialogue, the cinematography, the editing, and so on. It’s truly an overwhelming amount of information to list out, and you have to understand most of it to follow even the most basic of films.1

Finally, it’s worth noting that varied models of spectatorship go back a long way in film. Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) not only forces the puzzle mode of spectatorial engagement, it avoids providing any solution—and even takes steps to ensure no cohesive solution can be found. The film, in other words, presents a kind of internal narrative contradiction not as complete as in surrealist films like Dali & Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), but at any rate well beyond Tarantino.

The kind of thinking has led to new theories of artistic practice outside the cinema, too. As the first commenter on Lehrer’s post notes, Bertolt Brecht (among other interwar German thinkings, including Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin) had the idea that to lose oneself in a dramatic work would interfere with one’s full understanding of the human situation in the work and in the world surrounding it. Empathy, in other words, breeds sheep. Need that be our only choice at the movies?

1Many books and journal articles have been dedicated to spelling out these complex interactions of world, film, and mind. These include David Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema, and Edward Branigan’s Narrative Comprehension in Film (1992), and Carl Plantinga’s and Greg Smith’s anthology Passionate Views: Film Cognition and Emotion (1999).